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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Pukkila champions undergraduate research at UNC

pukkila_2On a cold winter night in 1979, Pat Pukkila woke up at 3 a.m., turned to her husband and said, “Honey, I have to go into the lab.”

A biology postdoc at Harvard, Pukkila knew that after many months, the results of her experiments, designed to show how bacteria correct mistakes made when DNA is copied, would be readable. As she recalls seeing the results, she is nearly moved to tears 34 years later.

“I can still feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck,” Pukkila said. “A problem is so simple once you understand it. It’s such a thrill to know something that no one else yet knows.”

Ensuring that undergraduates at Carolina have the opportunity for that same thrill of discovery has been Pukkila’s focus for the past 14 years. The professor of biology and founding director of Carolina’s Office for Undergraduate Research (OUR) has transformed the Carolina undergraduate academic experience.

“Pat’s leadership has helped build on campus a culture that supports discovery-based learning,” said Donna Bickford, associate director of OUR. “Students who have participated in an undergraduate research program see themselves as knowledge producers, not just knowledge consumers.”

That kind of transformative experience was what Pukkila hoped to achieve.

“My goal was to change the culture surrounding undergraduate involvement in creative original work,” she said. “I am proud to say that we have achieved that, and that we are the first public university to bring undergraduate research to scale in the curriculum.”

In fact, 65 percent of graduating seniors received academic credit for undergraduate research in 2011–12.

“Pat’s personal commitment to undergraduate research has been parlayed into an institutional commitment to doing this,” said Bobbi Owen, senior associate dean for undergraduate education.  “Pat is a pretty self-effacing person, so the work she does is never about her; it’s always about the students.”

Throughout Pukkila’s tenure as director – which will end this June upon her retirement – her innovations have extended the depth and breadth of undergraduate research opportunities.

Embracing research

The Graduate Research Consultant (GRC) program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last December, is just one example. GRCs are graduate students who provide support to faculty by guiding undergraduates through their research projects from beginning to end.

Bickford said that in the last 10 years, more than 750 GRCs have helped faculty in at least 700 courses provide research experiences to more than 21,000 undergraduate students. “Students who don’t even know they are interested in research have this opportunity because of Pat’s innovation,” she said.

Mallory Melton, a junior at Carolina, is grateful for the opportunities presented by the OUR. Last summer, Melton received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), a competitive grant that enables students to complete summer research projects developed with a faculty mentor.

Melton’s fellowship allowed her to collect and study sandstone samples in Mississippi and then travel to Washington, D.C., where she compared them to samples in the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History.

“I knew that I was able to memorize facts and think about archaeological sites in a lower-level way,” she said. “But this challenged me and made me realize how much I enjoy the process of higher-level thinking.”

Melton said the experience solidified her interest in anthropology and cemented her desire to pursue a Ph.D. program in her field. “This experience made me feel like an independent scholar who has a future in research,” she said.

Wanting to encourage other undergrads to get involved in research, Melton serves as an OUR Ambassador, a program Pukkila helped to create.

“We make presentations in classrooms and residence halls, places where students feel comfortable,” Melton said. “We help make students feel that undergraduate research isn’t frightening, but instead, something they can embrace and excel at.”

Broadening the reach

To help ensure that first-generation college students and other potentially underserved students have access to research opportunities, Pukkila successfully applied for a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“I wanted to put into place a program that could be woven into the fabric of Carolina and serve the students who weren’t applying for summer fellowships at rates that one would have expected,” said Pukkila.

Pukkila’s impact also extends to faculty.

Music professor Donald Oehler said that Pukkila helped him redefine what research is.

“My main role on campus is as a studio teacher, so I was perplexed when Pat asked me to get involved with this initiative,” he said. “She said, ‘Au contraire; everything you do is research.’”  

Oehler said that not only has Pukkila inspired him to be creative in how he has students approach projects and conduct research, she also has helped create a more cohesive academic community. “

Bickford called Pukkila the most articulate and passionate person she has ever heard speak about the power of inquiry. “She believes that inquiry is not only a linchpin to the development of individual students but also in the development of an educated and curious citizenry.”

Pukkila, who has been at Carolina for more than three decades, is a highly regarded scientist. Her lab has pioneered the use of the mushroom Coprinus cinereus (recently renamed Coprinopsis cinerea) as a model system for investigating chromosome dynamics during meiosis, the cell division process necessary for sexual reproduction.

She isn’t sure what her retirement will look like, but is open to the possibilities.

“I’m not somebody who has a whole list of unfulfilled ambitions,” Pukkila said. “I have many interests so I’m looking forward to the time and space to see what will happen next.”